Saturday, January 30, 2021

Roberto Fiesco | David

the pick-up

by Douglas Messerli

Roberto Fiesco, Julián Hernández, and Luis Martín Ulloa (writers), Roberto Fiesco (director) David / 2005 [14 minutes]

David is only the third short film I have seen by Mexican filmmaker Roberto Fiesco. But I can already generalize in describing him as one of the most talented of visual artists currently making movies.

     His films are less concerned with narrative—two of these are simply about unlikely people meeting up to share a few moments of love, and the other is about a violent murderer who kills women because he cannot fulfill his sexual desires with them—than they are about the landscape and look of the places in which their lovemaking takes place. As I mentioned in my writing about his look of his sets and use of color, the closest artist to whom I might compare him is Gregory Markopoulos. And despite the literalness of what exists of story in his works, in the tentativeness of situation and problematics of age and sex between his lovers in each these films, there is something almost abstract in his approach. If we can easily define and locate each object and action of his scenes and characters he somehow defamiliarizes them in way that helps us to feel that we are seeing something never seen before and perhaps never again witnessed.

      David (Jorge Adrián Espíndola), a young schoolboy who is clearly an aficionado of film, has decided to take off the day from school and, still wearing his book pack, moves off the school yard gates a short ways before he observes an older man sitting on a street bench. He walks a little beyond him, but slowly turns back, rubbing the back of his neck as if recognizing something about the man that makes him stop.

     We have just observed the same gentleman (Javier Escobar) looking for work only to find the announcement for a job as advertised in the newspaper being removed from a window placard at the location to which he has just shown up. He crosses it off his list with a look of exhaustion and despair.

      The boy suddenly stands next to him, pointing to the paper as if asking if might he see it. But the request, we soon discover, is somewhat of a ruse, for as he sits now next to the stranger it becomes clear that the boy wants to talk, except  for that fact, as he soon makes clear, that he is a mute. The man, José, asks a question to which the boy makes signals that he is unable to speak The man repeats his question louder, the boy responding with a laugh as he brings out a notebook, writing in it that he can hear perfectly, he simply cannot talk.

      Gradually, the two play a kind of guessing game between them, asking questions and answering them, sometimes with David responding with touch instead of language. It quickly becomes apparent that this man and boy do share something, and before we can even quite identify what it is, we see them checking into a hotel room, where, soon after, they make intense love.

      Later that afternoon we see the two of them lying side by side, José awakening and holding the boy to him again before he gets up, dresses, and leaves. David goes to the window and waves goodbye to José now stands below.

       Filming up close in such beautiful tones that you almost want to reach out and touch the screen in order to share the momentary pleasures of their bodies, Fiesco turns what might seem to be ordinary event into a nearly miraculous one. But of course it isn’t an everyday event for a young high school student to pick up with a man out of a job and  nearly out of money in order to provide one another with a special few hours that restores both their senses of worth and meaning. David is a treat to the eyes and José, if not a great beauty, is a handsome middle-aged man who might never have imagined himself to be worthy of such a special momentary display of innocent sex. And somehow, given the detail and flow of Fiesco’s camera we feel, even as voyeurs, as if we too had been made privy to something otherwise unimaginable—similar to the way we felt to watch a boy and soldier dance and kiss in a barbershop in the director’s Tremulo of 2015.

      These works help you to comprehend just how great cinema can be even in its most fragmentary of manifestations. 

Los Angeles, January 30, 2021

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (January 2021).

    

        

William Roth | Floating

sink or swim

by Douglas Messerli

William Roth (screenwriter and director) Floating / 1997

Van (Norman Reedus), a high school swimming champion, and his family lived in a beautiful lake home in an area that serves as a summer resort. He had plans of going to college, and his life seemed quite perfect until his father (Will Lyman), struggling with alcoholism lost his legs in an automobile accident, with Van’s mother determining finally to leave both behind taking most of their finances and ownership of the lake-front home with her. Van, left behind to care for his father in the run-down cottage where they now live, has basically given up all his plans, somewhat grudgingly befriending two local petty thieves Jason (Jonathan Quint) and Flip (Josh Marchette). Whereas his family were once recognized as leaders among the local year-long residents, they are now seen as outcasts, and even Van’s former girlfriend, Julie (Sybil Temchen), now a college girl, has given up on the boy she considers a loser.

      William Roth’s beach-side version of this “town and gown”-like story pits the all-year locals against the summer visitors whose lovely homes are those whom Van’s buddies regularly burgle using Van’s former family home as a place to stow their stash of stolen TVs, recording devices, computers, and stereos. That is until Van’s vanished mother rents out the place to a university swimming coach (Bruce Kenny) and his family which includes his son Doug (Chad Lowe), a champion swimmer on his father’s university team. To Van, Doug and his family, now inhabiting his former home, seem to represent everything to which he had once aspired.

      Unfortunately, Roth’s otherwise likeable film from 1997 relies far too heavily on the simplistic values of normative society, setting up issues between those with wealth against the lower middle class, those academically educated vs. the working class, and the superficially lawful against those who live by their own rules to be able to thoroughly explore the far more interesting themes of which the movie hints.



     It’s almost as if Roth took the template of Peter Yates’ 1979 film Breaking Away, determining to portray a showdown between that film’s Dennis Quaid character Mike and its hero Dennis Christopher’s Dave Stohler, but forgetting to add in any of the latter’s queer and almost comic obsession with Italian cycling. Reedus has all the brooding charm of Quaid, and Lowe also has a queer obsession—he’s a closeted gay boy—but has little of Christopher’s loony charm. And in this case the one who wants to truly “break away” and go to college is Reedus’ Van, not the already locked-in college boy Doug, who would love to escape the judgmental abuses of his homophobic father/coach. Both boys have father problems, but in the end it is clear that the wheel-chair bound alcoholic is far superior at parenting than the athletically fit and spiritually upbeat swim coach. And unfortunately that is the box into which Roth has steered his cinematic endeavor.     

    If Van and his errant friends first pretend to take a liking to the new boy Doug simply to be able, metaphorically speaking, to “get into his pants”—to find a way into the house in which he lives to retrieve their stolen loot—Van, who has not been directly involved in any of the lefts, takes a special interest in the boy, in part because of Doug’s open-minded friendliness, mostly evidence of his desperation to be liked. The two share a love of swimming, but also it is clear that the new boy represents all that Van has dreamed of becoming, a college swimmer with enough financial support that girls like Julie might fall in love with him.

      You have to give the director of this work credit, however, for stirring up the waters just a bit in having their friendship slowly boil over into something else, Doug’s homoerotic attraction to his new friend, and Van’s not even minding terribly when he discovers, through a hidden magazine under Doug’s mattress that his swimming chum is a homosexual. 

      Doug’s father, seeing that his son has taken up with a far more masculine and, in his thinking, “normal” boy, forces a kind of son/father showdown by offering Van a swimming scholarship (talent unseen), which pits Van’s love between the father—who offers him everything he desires—and the boy in the flesh, an unhappily trapped figure caught in the mesh of his family life. But even then Van seems to chose Doug over his friend’s father—or even his own father as he plans to steal his dad’s small hand-painted soldiers, worth a significant sum of money, so that he and Doug might run away together.

      That indeed might have made for a truly remarkable movie, the handsome straight James Dean-like figure running off into the void with a frightened gay kid—and without even a Nathalie Wood to come between them. But Roth both narratively and visually throws in the wrench at the very last moment, inexplicably having his hero change plans to find another victim instead, requiring Doug to get drunk, and as the police close around them, to drown him in the waters where he once so gracefully swam. Van comes home to a father to which he is now symbolically wed, the older man suddenly able to strap on his prosthetic legs just in time to hobble over and put an arm around the boy he has always loved.       

     Another gay man evidently needed to die for the sentimental myth of normative life. Sorry, this just doesn’t float for me this time around.

Los Angeles, January 30, 2021

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (January 2021).

 

Friday, January 29, 2021

Ferdinand Zecca | Par le trou de la serrure (What Is Seen Through a Keyhole) / 1901

what the porter saw

by Douglas Messerli

Ferdinand Zecca (director) Par le trou de la serrure (What Is Seen Through a Keyhole) / 1901

French director Ferdinand Zecca’s Par le trou de la serrure (What Is Seen Through a Keyhole) apparently premiered in 1901, released by the Pathé Company. However, it has also been titled What Happened to the Inquisitive Janitor and, in variations released in England, What Happend: The Inquisitive Janitor and Peeping Tom, the latter claiming to have been released in the US on June 1897.

     Both English and US film companies often stole Pathé and other film company’s products, releasing them sometimes, it appears, on false dates to confuse their audiences and to escape lawsuits. The US Peeping Tom version lists no director, so I will presume the Pathé information is more reliable.

     

     This is a simple visual tale of a hotel porter spying on four guests, the first a woman who slowly unpins her hair, letting it fall around her face.

      Looking into the second keyhole he sees a woman unloosening her corset, after which she quickly pulls out large stuffed socks which served as her breasts. She lifts off her false eyelashes, before removing her wig to fully reveal that she is a male transvestite.

      In the third room the porter witnesses a woman sitting on a gentleman’s lap as they pour our wine or champagne, drinking to one another and eating what appear to be appetizers.

      As he moves down to inspect the fourth keyhole a man suddenly appears, immediately realizing what was about to happen. He throws the porter down the stairs. The film suggests that it might have truly interesting if the porter had discovered the man in his room before he prepared to go out, for otherwise why might he be so severely offended?      

     Zecca, it is said, introduced documentaries, crime films, and works on religious subjects to Pathé. The film above was one of the first French films that was edited to combine wide and medium close-up shots.

      Clearly What Is Seen Through the Keyhole represents an element of voyeurism that occurred in early French silent cinema. Georges Méliès' granddaughter described What Is Seen as being in dubious taste. It was apparently distributed in the US in 1902 by Kleine Optical Company, the Edison Manufacturing Company, and the Lubin Manufacturing Company; so obviously in had a large audience on this side of the ocean.

Los Angeles, January 29, 2021

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (January 2021).

 

Ray Enright | The Tenderfoot

his own breed

by Douglas Messerli

Earl Baldwin, Monty Banks, and Arthur Caesar (screenplay, based on the 1903 play by Richard Carle and the 1935 play by George S. Kaufman), Ray Enright (director) The Tenderfoot / 1932

What’s true for almost all of the coded-queer films from Hollywood’s golden era of filmmaking from 1930-1960 is that it takes a clued-in eye sometimes to separate the heterosexual surface from the purposely hidden subtext—and admittedly one wonders at times whether it’s worth all the bother, particularly in the case of a rather mediocre work such as the Joe E. Brown vehicle The Tenderfoot of 1932, directed by Ray Enright, whose 73-some films represent some of the most inane productions of the studio system.

     I suspect if it weren’t for a few George S. Kaufman lines and plot intrigues from his The Butter and Egg Man that made their way into this work and the four others based on his and Richard Carle’s earlier versions of the story, we wouldn’t even remember The Tenderfoot. But then Brown’s theatrically athletic face (Brown might be said to be totally athletic: he began his life as a viable baseball player recruited for the New York Yankees and, earlier, as a circus tumbler) is sometimes worth watching, and to catch a glimpse of the young Ginger Rogers playing a major role is perhaps of significant interest. 

     The plot of Enright’s film is of concern only because it might be described as a kind of a prelude to Mel Brooks’ 1967 film and Susan Stroman’s 2005 musical version of The Producers, only in this case the Nazi musical is simply a badly conceived melodrama in which Tenderfoot producers Lew Cody (Joe Lehman) and McClure (Robert Grieg) convince the newly arrived Texas cattle-roper Calvin Jones (Joe E. Brown) to invest 49% ($20,000). (Nevertheless, there is a sour anti-Semitic joke about “the lost tribe” as well as Brown’s wisecrack that reading the menu of the Jewish delicatessen is incomprehensible.)

     And, yes, the play which Cody and McClure are certain will be a sure-fire flop turns, as in The Producers, into a hit after Calvin buys out the rest of the shares and—since he no longer can afford new costumes—dresses his small town melodramatic thespians in Shakespearian vestments which convince the audience, just as does Springtime for Hitler, that the dreadful work must surely be a satire.

     There’s not much else to The Tenderfoot’s plot except that Calvin falls in love with Cody and McClue’s secretary, Ruth Watson (Ginger Rogers) and when he makes a fortune from his producing activities he is threatened by the mafia; thank heaven Calvin’s an award-winning shooter and carries two loaded pistols with him wherever he goes and that he can successfully lasso even a New York taxi!

      I now realize if there wasn’t a minor gay subtext there wouldn’t be much else to even talk about in the movie. And the script really wants its audience to perceive what it pretends to suppress by herding Calvin into the delicatessen where he meets the producers through the sudden appearance of eight cowboys dressed in fleecy chaps filing into the shop. The Texan hick shouts out: “You can stop right here I see some of my own breed over there across the canyon,” signaling that he’s found his own kind—a greeting he might soon regret given that when he yells out “Yippee!” the  gay chorus boys, all looking a great deal like the queer cowboy in Ralph Cedar’s The Soilers (1923), in unison holler back with a flap of the wrists “Whoo Hoo!” “They may be cowboys,” Calvin muses, “but they ain’t from Texas.”

   

     But then, as we all know, he ain’t in Texas anymore! And even from the very first frame we recognize that the actor Joe. E. Brown, born and raised near Toledo, Ohio, is dressed in drag with his string tie and ten-gallon hat that, when his character is transformed into a producer, will dress up in drag again in city-slicker duds, in which Calvin always looks miserable as he struts about in stiff-legged strides through the city environs.

    Even if the script makes it clear that Calvin is a heterosexual stricken with love for Ruth, she appears to also be acting in her sexual encouragement just to keep him on the ranch, so to speak.

     After she makes it clear that she has just been pretending and declares that he’s been an utter idiot to believe in Cody’s and McClure’s schemes, the almost mindless Calvin buys out the schemers’ remaining shares.

     That’s when the new “butter and egg man” in the form of the hotel party waiter comes in. To convince him to invest the needed money, Calvin tells the plot of the old-fashioned melodrama all over again, almost literally pawing the poor would-be producer as he describes the various amatory actions of the poor farmer’s daughter who falls in love with an evil city-slicker and the good-hearted local postman who genuinely loves her. It’s one of the best scenes in the film as Brown playing Calvin puts his arm around the waiter’s shoulder, positions his rubber face smack in front of his prospective investor’s eyes, and drops to floor to declare the character’s love. I could have sworn that Calvin was about to kiss the man, but even in a pre-code flick that might have been going a bit too far. We certainly do come to comprehend, however, just how close the attempts to convince a man to surrender his money to a Broadway play is to courting a lover. If you recall, that’s how Zero Mostel got in trouble in The Producers as well.

      Throughout the film, in fact, the overly-excited subordinate partner tosses out one-liners and malapropisms. After swallowing the last remnants of a banana, Calvin queries in Mae West fashion: “If an apple a day, keeps a doctor away—what'll a banana do?” And later, greeting the bellboys, he shouts out “Ejaculations!”

      This is, of course, a Hollywood movie and, accordingly, we see no more of the “bride” who has been willing to marry his life-savings to this fellow dreamer. Calvin naturally returns to the Lone Star state with Ruth, at film’s end the mother of triplets. But don’t worry, even if they look a bit like Calvin they’re not really the product of his sperm but are cinematically created homunculi, cloned evidently from fan photos.

     Although this film might have convinced any ordinary producer that it would surely prove to be a flop, Brian Foy, the eldest son of the vaudeville troupe “Eddie Foy and the Seven Little Foys” must have recognized it as perfect addition to the growing list of what would eventually become 241 films that he produced, all grade B pictures. Among Hollywood insiders he was known as “The keeper of the B’s.”

Los Angeles, January 29, 2021

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (January 2021).

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Lasse Nielsen | Dragen (The Kite) 2015

staying put

by Douglas Messerli

Lasse Nielsen (writer and director) Dragen (The Kite) / 2015

Ever since the 1975 film Leave Us Alone (La’ os være), Danish film director Lasse Nielsen—his first two works done in collaboration with Ernst Johansen—has been exploring in various forms young long-haired, mostly blond, boys in love in a manner that was not only controversial in its day, but remains a territory which most US directors have been charry of entering. Nielsen’s and Johansen’s 1978 work You Are Not Alone (Du er ikke alene), reviewed in an earlier volume of My Queer Cinema, has long become an LGBTQ cult favorite, shown at film festivals around the world.

     Fortunately, Nielsen never rested on his laurels and continued into the 21st century to shoot features and shorts that speak in various ways about not only coming of age love, but love that has its roots in early youth. Perhaps if the US had further considered these issues there would have been no necessity for a brutally frightening work such as Farbod Khoshtinat’s 2020 short, Two Little Boys, in which innocent boyhood love turns into teen angst and a locker room murder/suicide—a film based on a childhood incident of the Iranian-born director, but is particularly American, I would argue, in its sensibility.

      In his 2015 14-minute film The Kite (Dragen) Nielsen takes us back to those first moments of love that later help define ones sexuality for life. But before we can get there, the director presents us with a seemingly quite lonely adult, Bo (Mark Viggo Krogsgaard) who lives in a small, but comfortable house with walls line with books and paintings, but a back yard of apparently old and rusting yard and patio furniture—folding metal lawn chairs, tables, etc.—and a swing set, as if there once must have been children in the house. Bo seems to be a kind of gardener with lots of plants and vegetables, but also checks out paintings and the jewelry portrayed in one of them with a magnifying glass. Is this his old family homestead or a home from which a wife and child (or children) have now fled. The clues do not completely add up to present us with a definitive answer. But there is certainly something solitary and forlorn about his life.

      Meanwhile, in another beach or country house we see the adult Ole (Mads Korsgaard) working in his garage, completing a home-made paper kite upon which his has rather crudely drawn a smiley-face in blue and red crayons. He picks up his cell phone and makes a call.

       Back in Bo’s house, we observe him in his greenhouse, clipping tomatoes. We hear his phone ring, and he picks it up to see a text message: “Kom til stranden ved Stængehus in morgen kl14. Se efter dragen!” (“Come to Stængehus beach tomorrow at 2:00. Look for the kite.”)

       Bo looks up and remembers, probably, the same message from long ago. And so the film begins with the long-auburn-haired Bo (Marius Bjørnbak Brix) riding his bicycle as a boy to Stængehus strand, which is evidently also a nude beach since, after he parks his bike and proceeds to the sand, a heavyset male nudist crosses the road from the wood, and soon after Bo observes a couple of young men lying nude upon a towel in a deep embrace kissing. Observing the boy, they gently shoo him off. Bo watches for a moment, his lips eventually moving up to a slight smile, before moving on.

       As he moves closer to the shore he observes a kite (much like the one we have seen the adult Ole recreate) high in the air, which finally falls to the beach just above where he stands. The boy Ole (Jonathan Lindinger) signals Bo to join him on the small cliff where he waits. Bo takes off his shoes, pours out the sand from them, and joins Ole to fly the kite.


       The film returns to the adult Bo now sitting on a small chair just outside the greenhouse, holding a glass of wine. A smile, just like to one that came to his face as a kid, comes over his face in his memory of the event.

       And the camera moves back to another day in Bo and Ole’s halcyon days. Together they do what boys do, fly the kite, run after it and one another, and leap into the air with the joy of simply being able to.


        Evidently worn out by their efforts, we soon seem them laid out next to one another on a towel, sleeping. Bo awakens, looks over at the shirtless Ole and, observing his chest, takes off his own shirt. He begins to lie back but remains partially upright, rubbing his foot briefly against Ole’s. When Ole still doesn’t quite awaken, he picks up some sand and sprinkles a little over the other’s chest. In his sleep, Ole brushes it away. But when Bo follows by running his own hand lovingly across his friend’s chest, Ole quickly springs awake, wrestling his way on top of Bo, the other wrestling back into a similar position with Ole repeating it to plant a quick kiss on Bo’s lips. Bo pulls him closer kissing him more gently.

        Obviously, a great deal of affection has risen between these two friends, and slowly, almost as a game of bluff, the two now play at undressing, one first unbuttoning his shorts and the other following, alternately unzipping their shorts and then pulling them down and gradually off to reveal their swimsuits. They do a short striptease with each other eventually, we presume—since Nielsen’s camera has discretely pulled away to watch the high whip of the kite across the sky—until they are both nude.

       But the kite in this instance also becomes a sign of their location, and we soon see Ole’s father (Kenneth Christensen) coming down the path ostensibly to bring his son home. When he spots the naked boys he angrily pulls Ole off, the boy having who mistakenly grabbed Bo’s swimsuit to quickly hide his nakedness. Bo, wrapped in a blanket, looks down to see Ole’s white swimsuit in front of him. It is almost as if in the remnants of their clothing they have exchanged something close to a vow.

        Throughout Bo’s recollections we have heard the lovely strains of a song by Nielsen’s frequent musical collaborator Sebastian, and now that songwriter/composer’s lyrics for “Når lyset bryder frem” (“When the Light Breaks Out”), posted in English at the very beginning of this film, make sense:

                               You little child, on your way to dreamland

                               Suddenly you meet a strange man.

                               He takes you across the deep water

                               To a strange beach

                               Where everything you see

                               Is like a fairy tale.

                               And when the light breaks through,

                               Yeah...time to go home. 

         But this time the “light breaks through” in a different manner, as the adults, Bo and Ole, return to the same beach, Bo, with Ole’s long-lost swimming trunks hanging from his pocket, as in the first time stopping to pour the sand from his shoes which eventually he leaves with the swimsuit before running to join Ole on the small rise from where he is flying the kite. This time the two immediately embrace before releasing themselves in a series of intense kisses—the kite flying off into space—without any fear this time of their being “found out.”

       Not only do we have no idea what has happened to the two in the years since their childhood encounters, but we do know why they have remained apart for what some sources (IMBd for example) describe as a 20-year separation; all we know is that this time they will not have to “go home” alone.

Los Angeles, January 28, 2021

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (January 2021).

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Rosa von Praunheim | Nicht der Homosexuelle ist pervers, sondern die Situation, in der er lebt (It Is Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse, But the Society in Which He Lives

pilgrim’s progress

by Douglas Messerli

Martin Dannecker, Sigurd Wurl and Rosa von Praunheim (writers), Rosa von Praunheim (director) Nicht der Homosexuelle ist pervers, sondern die Situation, in der er lebt (It Is Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse, But the Society in Which He Lives) / 1971

Early in his perceptive essay on Rosa von Praunheim’s radical manifesto about the gay male experience, Călin Boto writes:

 It Is Not the Homosexual was undoubtedly the cherry bomb of German Queer Cinema. Its rough looks and extravaganza, with a nervous voiceover barely overlapping the campy sketchy visuals of the narrative, made it a strange animal for film culture at that time. If anything, it has certain similarities to a subgroup of the New American Cinema, namely the avantgarde erotica of Jack Smith and Ron Rice, but also to the histrionic suburban comedies of John Waters and the homoerotic cheap flicks made by Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey in the late ’60s and early ’70s. But these films had more to do with political existence than with political engagement, and their directors rarely turned against their own characters (up to some point they even seem to adore their characters and the over-the-topness of everything that’s on-screen...)”

     Von Praunheim’s film certainly was a “cherry bomb” of sorts, and still startles a bit today it its seeming attack on the very gay community it sets out to explore; but that depends upon how you read his work which might be open to question even after one individual’s multiple viewings.

     It Is Not the Homosexual begins, in fact, a bit like the American film of 17 years later, Roger Stigliano’s Fun Down There, in which a completely innocent and clueless young man from upstate New York determines to move “down there” to New York to find out what gay life is really all about. In von Praunheim’s film the country cousin is Daniel (Bernd Feuerhelm), an attractive young man dressed in a dark suit who somehow connects up with the handsome, blond-haired, and more casually and fashionably-dressed Clemens (Berryt Bohlen) who after a short walk down a German boulevard in which they share banal information—via a voiceover which continues the narrative throughout—takes Daniel home for “a cup of coffee.”

        It is no surprise that in the very next scene we observe them in Clemens rather’ kitchily decorated apartment kissing, and a moment later Clemens is telling Daniel how lonely he is and how much he longs for a sincere friend. There is from the very beginning of this scene almost a sense of camp, as when Clemens almost immediately attempts to “court” his young street discovery by pulling away from the kiss and turning to face Daniel directly to say in an almost Brechtian manner:

                       I like you my boy. I’m so glad we met. You seem so natural

                       and honest. That’s rare. Most guys are callous and phony.

                       Speaking of love while already thinking of the next guy....

                       I’ve never stopped looking for a true friend. Guys don’t want

                       to be gay. They don’t want to be different. They want to live

                       as kitchy and bourgeois as the average citizen. They long for

                       a home where they can live with an honest and faithful friend.

     Already, the “assigned” dialogue—since the speeches come not through the lips of the characters acting in a naturalistic manner, but from an identified source in the form of the voiceover— is filled with the contradictions that the film itself will play off of and contradict again with its secondary and tertiary arguments. But for the moment, we certainly can well imagine that Clemens is one of those gay men who don’t want to be gay or different and who obviously desires to live in a sexual relationship more akin to those of heterosexual society. And those in von Praunheim’s audience who have had any experience with being gay already may begin to chafe at Clemens’ comments. Who said we all don’t like being gay and different? And who presumes that we all desire to live lives as “kitchy and bourgeois” as those with normative values? Or, we might even ask, who presumes those are the truly normative values?

      By the end of this scene the statements that appeared to represent Clemens’ point of view, subtly switch to become intrusive generalities of gay life spoken by some presumable authority such as a government judge, a psychologist, or possibly even a homosexual apologist.

      Moving quickly away from Clemens’ personal beliefs, these generalizations of gay life almost immediately irritate and anger anyone invested in the queer experince. Indeed, one might almost imagine these statements, at first, to be similar to those one might encounter in a didactic student film on the dangers of homosexuals like the 1950s US shorts Beware!, Boys Beware!, and Beware of Homosexuals—in Frank Ripploh’s Taxi zum Klo (1981) we see an example of a German version—used here, one might imagine, as a camp device to rouse the viewer into his own sense of caution regarding von Praunheim’s narrative.

       The earliest of these, at first, seems benign enough: “Gays demand each other to be aesthetes, to care about their appearances. It makes them proud and distinguishes them from the rest. Condemned as sick and inferior by the bourgeoisie they try to be even more like them in order to wear away their feeling of guilt....They’re politically passive and conservative in gratitude for not being beaten to death.”  By the time it closes, beginning with the statement, “A homosexual relationship, as much as both partners want it, is doomed to fail,” almost anyone who has lived as a gay man, a lesbian, bisexual, or transgender individual for more than a couple of months should be already enraged with this movie. Fortunately, the narrative voice reappears celebrating the love of the two men who have just had sex in front of us.

       Given Clemens’ stated values it is not surprising that Daniel soon leaves the relationship to explore other kinds of sexual relationships and encounters. If these were presented simply as a series of narrative events we might almost see Daniel’s Pilgrim’s Progress in reverse or what might better be described as a Dantean voyage into Inferno as a fascinating study in male gay sexual variations. Daniel first hooks up with a wealthy art-collector, a man who surrounds himself with similar men who use their young boys as performing objects who they show off for their own and other’s pleasure. Certainly, Daniel learns immensely from his time with his “daddy,” now able to speak of art, music, and literature, but he soon realizes that he is himself like the subjects he as acquired, a “representation” of financial and social prestige instead of a human being to be treasured. One day, he realizes, he too might be sold off when the elder man grows tired of his accoutrement.

       Becoming a barista in a gay establishment, Daniel suddenly finds a new independence where he can become a regular in the gay culture he now inhabits. His daily pick-ups introduce him to a world based on, as Boto summarizes: “good looks, flirts, flings, dress codes” and geniality—a world defined, in short, by surfaces.

       By night he scours the gay bars and clubs where sex depends not only on the daylight charms and signals but on patience, waiting, and chance (as we have seen in films such as Ron Peck’s Nighthawks of 1978). Tired of those determinants, Daniel also begins to explore cruising in public parks, at leather men and their motorcycle hangouts, and in toilets (the favorite locale of the character in the aforementioned Taxi zum Klo).

     When all these fail to satisfy Daniel’s now seemingly insatiable sexual desires, he gathers with others from the various gay cliques we have already encountered—older gay men, motorcycle boys, drugged-out juveniles, transvestites, and transgender women at an after-hours club to sing, dance, and decompress. There he surprisingly runs into an old friend.       

    This seemingly endless struggle for sexual satiation, particularly given Daniel’s radical transformation from a handsome young man to a dead-eyed, hulking beast with outsized mutton-chopped sideburns might have been entertaining if only for its exploration of the limits of gay sexual expression if it were not for the increasingly rabid commentary of the voiceover evaluation of gay life that by the penultimate scene of the film has utterly infuriated any viewer who might have bothered to watch this work by Rosa von Praunheim—who adopted the female name Rosa as a testament to the pink triangles gay men were forced to wear in the Nazi Concentration Camps and took on the name Praunheim from the neighborhood in which he grew up—that might be best categorized as a moral manifesto.

       To give you a sense of the near hysteria that the anti-narrative accessors’ rant finally reaches, I’ve chosen a longish passage almost at random:

                    Most gays resemble the type of “nice guy” from a good family

                    who places great value on a masculine appearance. They lead a

                    double life, afraid of being outed as homosexuals. Their greatest

                    enemy is the flamboyant “fairy.” Fairies are effeminate homo-

                    sexuals who attempt to act like hysterical women. They wear

                    makeup and are the worst nightmare of the bourgeoisie and of

                    closeted gays who could be exposed by them. Fairies are not as

                    phony as bourgeois gays. Gays are often conceited, moody, and

                    jealous. Fairies overdo their gay attitudes and ridicule them. They

                    question society’s standards and show what it means to be gay.

 

And later, when Daniel begins to frequent pissoirs:

                    Public toilets are the most popular meeting points for homosexuals.

                   Gays who have trouble connecting are forced to have their first

                   homosexual experience in a public toilet. Being punished for their

                   homosexuality by society and left with a guilty conscience, many

                   have reduced their homosexuality strictly to sex. They stand side

                   by side in constant fear of discovery and finally if they pick some-

                   one up, they have to get off within seconds. A relationship directed

                   only to a man’s penis is for many gays the only kind of love-

                   making they know. They go from toilet to toilet constantly seeking

                   satisfaction, which, if they’re lucky, can only be found

                   compromised. Gays hold public toilets in low esteem. They

                   claim to despise “toilet-queers,” but secretly go there them-

                   selves if they don’t score in one of their fancy bars. Here

                   they appreciate the often “masculine laborer” kind of guys

                   who are not interested in hiding their lust underneath

                   fashion and good manners....

While any LGBTQ person would find these passages to be filled with stereotypical nonsense, we also cannot help but sense there is some element of truth behind these vociferous attacks. Why, we have to ask is the highly concerned gay activist von Praunheim saying all these things without putting them into any context?

     As one anonymous commentator writing on the Mubi site expressed it: “I don't get this. Is it supposed to be funny or is it just awkward incompetence. If you are not gay, this is bound to bore you to death, but if you are gay, do you really want Rosa von Praunheim to prattle on for over an hour about how fucked up gays are. I guess, if you see this at a public screening it's good laughs all around, whereas my main reaction was a deep gratefulness that the Seventies have long gone past.”

     At the after-hours club, the man whom our anti-hero Daniel met invites him home to the gay commune in which he lives. There five naked men, laying on the floor, patiently listen while Daniel describes his Berlin adventures. Boto nicely sums up the questions and answers they put to him:

“Who are these men? They seem some kind of radical collective, free love and hard politics (“erotically free and socially responsible”), who deliver an uncompromising diagnosis: Daniel has been living the sugar cotton dream of a faux sexually emancipated queer. Instead of becoming politically aware of his status and making use of it, he offered himself to frivolous hedonistic fantasies, deeply rooted in meaningless concepts—sex without responsibilities, fashion, bourgeois art and education, self-destructive vices etc. They preach a new way of being queer, consisting of responsible free love, political activism, togetherness with other oppressed minorities, an en masse coming out etc. Is this von Praunheim’s ideal of queers? It surely seems so. “Closeted gays must have the guts to come out. Fairies and leather men should end their feud and fight for their freedom side by side,” they tell Daniel. “Get out of the toilets, take to the streets,” von Praunheim concludes with full-screen cardboard signs.”

      If this is von Praunheim’s suggestion of how to erase all the slurs that he has previously posited against gays in the rest of film, I would argue the film is a total failure. What these men argue for is in many respects what had already begun to happen after Stonewall and by 1971 was being argued for in gay liberation meetings throughout the world. My husband Howard and I met at one in Madison, Wisconsin while presumably von Praunheim was shooting this work. Yet many of the major elements of his idealistic manifesto were simply impossible, given, first of all, that gay men and the entire LGBTQ community (the latter of which von Praunheim inexplicably ignores in his manifesto) are made up of a wildly diverse group of individuals not only in their sexual preferences—as the film has certainly revealed—but socially, financially, and intellectually as well, and given that fact such a purposeful paradise was simply impossible, even if many of this communes’ wishes were already granted.

     Gays with lesbians, bisexuals, transgender people, and those who just don’t yet know or may never know where they stand with regard to sexual orientation, along with their parents and friends took to the streets. The vast majority of closeted gays came out over the next few decades. Fairies and leather men joined together in annual Gay Pride marches.

     But at the heart of it, sex, given the AIDS epidemic, even as “responsible” free love seemed a dangerous thing, although it is still practiced (sometimes not so responsibly). Contrarily, a large portion of the LGBTQ community fought for and entered into marriages which these five naked men might also have perceived as utterly bourgeois. Parks are still cruised, bathrooms still frequented when they exist. Blacks, Hispanics, and other people of color joined with gays when it was useful, but often found their needs and the ways to achieve them radically different from the LGBTQ agendas. If this concluding scene is why this film is still so very important today then I’d have to agree with the confused Mubi correspondent: “I’m glad the 1970s are over.”

     What von Praunheim really achieved was to create a narrative and attending commentary that functioned something like the sound of a drag queen’s fingernails scratching across the clapperboard of this film’s content. It drove us crazy; it made us mad; it helped us to sit up and ask questions we had long been afraid to ask. Those lazy nude men could say whatever they might, but we had already pricked up our ears and begun to fight.

      I’d like to see It Is Not the Homosexual all over again, but run backwards so that we might see Daniel dance through the urinals back into Clemens’ arms, but with the knowledge of all he had learned to tell his lover that a relationship is not at all what he had imagined it to be. For god’s sake, pull down that wallpaper, Clemens, and stroll with Daniel once again down the Ku'damm. Today it’s a different place. Now that would be a true pilgrim’s progress.

Los Angeles, January 26, 2021

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (January 2021).